To begin with, let me say that I don’t necessarily consider myself A Writer, though I try my best. Despite my recent novel publication, when I sit at my computer I suffer the same anxieties of lowliness, stupidity, sniffling, and bad page days as I did before. I’m not sure these ever go away.
So do you still want to be a writer?
I’m writing this post because I’ve been asked many times: How and where do I start? Here’s the best I can come up with:
1. Learn Your Craft
Just because you wrote excellent English essays in college or have friends who claim you type a “mean” email, doesn’t mean you know how to write creatively. I would argue that it takes at least two years of intensive study to learn the art of creative writing; for many it takes a lifetime. Of course, an MFA degree gives you the most time and headspace to at least get your feet wet. The choice also signals to others and yourself that you take your writing seriously. But many of us are too old, too poor, and have too many responsibilities to enter such programs. There are other options. Google any of the names below to find their websites for more info:
· The low-residency MFA. A way to keep your job (and life) while earning an MFA at the same time. These programs give you a community of writers, serious deadlines, and excellent instruction. Most require up to a ten-day residence every semester. For the remaining time you work at home and correspond with your instructor(s) over email/mail. My favorite is the Warren Wilson program, but I would check out Poets & Writers’ most recent edition for a list of the ten best low-res programs in the country (www.pw.org)
· Writing Conferences. Some last a couple of days, some almost two weeks, but the best writing conferences give you a chance to attend craft classes, participate in a workshop, and have your manuscript critiqued by a faculty member. They also allow you to meet other writers, both those starting out and those farther along in their careers, and listen to a wide-range of readings so you can keep abreast of current voices and styles. My favorites include Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference (www.middlebury.edu/blwc), Sewanee Writers’ Conference (www.sewaneewriters.org), and Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop (www.tinhouse.com/workshop/index.htm), as well as somewhat smaller (and more affordable) venues such as The Wesleyan Writers’ Conference (www.wesleyan.edu/writing/conference) and Grub Street’s The Muse and the Marketplace (www.grubstreet.org). Most offer either full or partial scholarships based on the quality of your manuscript submission.
· Your local writing center. Boston’s Grub Street (www.grubstreet.org), New York’s Gotham Writers (www.writingclasses.com), Denver’s Lighthouse Writers (www.lighthousewriters.org), and Minneapolis’ The Loft (www.loft.org). These are probably the country’s best organizations, but there are far more. Not only will your local writing center offer classes, workshops, and individual manuscript consultations, but they also hold readings, parties, and other events where you can meet fellow writers.
· Writing groups. Some of the above writing centers are great places to start your search for a writing group. Allow yourself to be both picky about which group you join (and which personalities and talents join yours) and serious about your own time commitment to the group.
· Self-study. Some of my favorite books on writing are Creating Fiction, edited by Janet Checkoway, Burning Down the House, by Charles Baxter, Bringing the Devil to His Knees, edited by Baxter and Turchi, The Half-Known World, by Robert Boswell, Aspects of the Novel, by E.M. Forster, The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, by David Lodge, Manuscript Makeover, Elizabeth Lyon Master Class in Fiction Writing, by Adam Sexton, and The Writing of Fiction, by Edith Wharton.
2. Know Your Resources
Poets & Writers magazine and corresponding website (www.pw.org) may just be the best resource going. The magazine runs articles about writing and publishing, and the website contains helpful links and information about literary magazines, small presses, literary agents, writing contests, residencies and conferences, literary organizations, MFA programs, job listings, and publishing questions. And if you like what you see, buy a subscription to the magazine. You’ll want to keep this kind of resource going.
3. Network with Other Writers
In olden days, this was called “making friends.” Of course, you probably already have friends, or hopefully you do. But writers are a different animal altogether, and writing friends are necessary for sharing in the mental breakdowns, drinking bouts, crying fits, delusions of grandeur, poetic rants, vows of silence, and bad decisions with the opposite sex you will suffer as you make your way to becoming A Writer. I once had a writing friend who refused to turn the lights on for several months. That’s what I mean.
Writing friends are also useful as readers, and their feedback is far more trustworthy than that of your mother or stockbroker roommate (except of course if your mother is a writer, as mine is). And unless you’re willing to pay a pretty penny, these friends may be the only people who will slog through your four-hundred page novel—because eventually you’ll return the favor.
Finally, writing friends are invaluable resources once you’ve gotten your career going. They can remind you about contests, invite you to do readings, notify you about jobs, and may even write blurbs. Be careful though. God help the poor friend who writes a blurb more out of duty than admiration. Never force a friend to endanger his integrity. And always try to return any favors.
So how do you make writing friends? Take a gander at the writing resource centers above. Go to readings. Attend writing conferences. Apply for artist residencies. Join online writers’ sites such as redroom (www.redroom.com) and shewrites (www.shewrites.com). At this point I’m lucky enough to have befriended so many fellow writers that my to-read list (and my bookshelves) are permanently stocked.
4. Stick to a Schedule
Some people write “when the mood strikes them.” If you lived the rest of your life this way, you’d be a five-hundred pound alcoholic bed-wetter sleeping with the dog in your mother’s basement . And your mother would hate you too. Try to shoot a little higher. It may take a little experimenting to find a schedule that’s both challenging and practical, but once you do, make sure everyone on your speed dial knows exactly what it is and doesn’t bother you.
Personally, I try to write at least four afternoons a week, sometimes five. I’m lucky. I live on an academic schedule and other than the days I teach, I’m at home working on my own writing. Don’t think people still don’t complain. I had several boyfriends in a row claim they never saw me in the daylight. What was I doing? Sorry to say, but I’m no longer dating them.
Three hours three times a week is a good rule of thumb. One-hour every day is a good rule too. If either of these seems too difficult for your hectic life, try scheduling at least 15 minutes a day to sit yourself in that chair and write something. Everyone can find 15 minutes, and most likely you’ll stay in that chair far longer. The trick is usually to get yourself in that chair in the first place.
No matter which schedule you make for yourself, I also advise you set aside at least five minutes each day to look at your notes and/or read a paragraph or two. Doing so ensures that your creative and mental energies are always somewhat plugged in to what you’re working on.
Need a place to work? I find most cafes a pleasure to write in. Try to locate one near a college or university. It will be swamped with students and professors furiously working on their laptops. Seeing others at work has always helped me keep at it, even if the weather outside is glorious. And sitting with others helps me feel less like a loser. The density of fellow café customers also creates a white noise that is easy to shut out.
Need someplace quiet? Many cities now have writing rooms, such as the Writers Room of Boston (www.writersroomofboston.org), for which you pay a small monthly fee for a quiet space to work. These are great spaces to meet other writers as well. Some writing resource centers, such as Grub Street (can you tell I love this organization?), also offer writing space for free. Otherwise, go to your local library. And when arguments arise about the funding of these libraries come election time, be sure to speak up in support. You’re a writer after all and libraries are your best friend.
5. Grow a Thicker Skin
Because what you put on the page is not you, but no amount of therapy will convince you otherwise. Writing is not about praise from others. It’s about your own hard work, heartache, joy, humor, and fear. No one’s reaction to your work can change that fact. But if you don’t learn to listen to advice without losing your vision and your cool—even if you eventually ignore that advice altogether—you’ll never move forward. The best feedback doesn’t usually tell you how to fix a problem, but even the worst feedback may reveal that a problem exists—and that’s a gift.